Hong Kong (AFP)

In some Asian countries, a deluge of false information and hoaxes on the new coronavirus has invaded the internet, fueling fear and confusion.

Since the first measures to fight the epidemic were put in place in the region in February, AFP has identified more than 150 false reports of containment.

The motivations of the people at the origin of this overabundance of this misleading information: will to discredit governments, aggravate different religious or simple farce.

However, in all cases, the consequence is the same: disinformation is widely shared as an established fact.

In the Philippines, in April, a video shared on Facebook and seen by tens of thousands of people showed a man being shot for having ignored a checkpoint set up as part of the coronavirus. In reality, it was a police training exercise.

Some people, outraged by these images, have contested this alleged use of police force, long accused of violating human rights in President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs.

Conversely, those who support this policy against drug traffickers and the cause of thousands of deaths hailed the action of the police against this "stubborn" man.

Other false information has circulated in the Philippines, including reports of an extended confinement or of protesters opposed to the government who allegedly violated the ban on assembly.

In Thailand, a video viewed hundreds of thousands of times showed customers who, in a panic, were scrambling to get their supplies in Malaysia after the implementation of strict containment. In their comments, Facebook users worried that such a scene would happen in Thailand.

In reality, these images had been filmed in Brazil in November 2019 during Black Friday, a day of sales.

The misinformation "has fueled a lot of uncertainty and anxiety among the population," said Yvonne Chua, associate professor of journalism at the University of the Philippines.

- "People are looking for answers" -

For Axel Bruns, who teaches media at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia, the confusion on the internet has been greater in countries where governments have communicated poorly on containment.

In Thailand, where restraint measures were imposed in March, anxiety spread with false reports that the wearing of the mask was punishable by a fine of 200 Thai baht (5.66 euros).

This rumor quickly spread to Facebook, Twitter and Line messaging, forcing Thai police to deny it during a press briefing.

But less than a month later, some provinces announced much heavier fines for people without masks, fueling confusion.

In India, misinformation spread when nationwide confinement was imposed in March.

Among the fallacious messages that have circulated are political defamation, rumors about strict confinement and rumors intended to stir up religious tensions.

The videography of an ax attack, seen tens of thousands of times via false messages on Facebook and Twitter, claimed that they were Muslim extremists killing a Hindu during confinement.

In reality, it was an attack in Pakistan.

While some users of social networks have seen that this sequence came from abroad, others have been duped, claiming that it was proof that India needed a "military regime".

Mr. Bruns believes that this avalanche of misleading information is partly due to the inability of governments to properly reassure their citizens.

"The circulation of disinformation is increased during such times because people are desperately looking for answers to their questions about what is happening, why and what they can do to protect themselves," said Bruns.

"If they do not find a satisfactory response from the authorities, they will start looking elsewhere."

© 2020 AFP